Portlander Robert Wright shared this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of two Portland pilots in World War II.
A dirty, hungry little mutt, wandering around the Pacific tropical island of Tinian, was accustomed to the roar of giant aircraft. It was hot, midday. The returning aircrews shut down the engines on their B-29 bombers after completing another 17-hour round-trip mission. Japan was far to the north. The mongrel scampered over the hot tarmac to find shade under giant wings, and hopefully a bit of food from an airman.
A graduate of Grant High School was on one of those bombers. He had been Grant’s student body president and was now an Army Air Corps bombardier, caught up in the war in the Pacific. He climbed down and stood in the shade underneath a wing. The little dog perked up and ran over.
Tom Bowen picked it up and thought for a moment. He rubbed some grit from the ramp onto the dog’s fur, and maybe some black grease from a landing gear strut. The poor dog now looked like it had been through much more than being homeless. As the crew climbed onto a flight-line truck, Bowen had that wry grin his buddies knew well.
They and the crews that made it back that day shuffled into the Quonset hut to debrief the intelligence officer. Among them was Jack Cramer, a navigator on another bomber, also an Oregonian, who had been on the same mission. Bowen and Cramer were the only two from Oregon in their squadron.
Low-level fire bombing missions over Tokyo at night were harrowing for those in the air; certainly for those on the ground. As always, after each mission, shot glasses of whiskey were slid across the table to the aircrews along with a “Welcome back, fellas. Thanks.”
Bowen held the little dog on his lap as the details of the bombing mission were told. The intelligence officer knew his wartime sense of humor. When finished, he asked, “OK, Bowen, what’s with the dog?”
Bowen then wove fiction with fact.
The first bombers over the target had to brave the anti-aircraft barrage. The B-29s were flung around violently in the fire-bred turbulence. Some were upended and lost. Cinders, small chunks of charred wood and bits of burned newspaper were caught up in the strong, hot air currents. Over the inferno, when the bomb bay doors were opened, burned debris swept in. Back on Tinian, it was swept out by ground crews. This was all true, and had been reported by war correspondents.
With a deadpan, straight face, Bowen answered that on the return flight a crew member had found the dog wedged between braces in a corner of the bomb bay, and that they had managed to resuscitate the poor thing. He went on to confirm that the dog certainly was not on the aircraft when they took off.
Bowen offered the only plausible explanation, that the dog had been blown up into the air by an explosion on the ground and carried up into the bomb bay by extremely powerful thermal updrafts from the burning city. There were a few smiles. Certainly, none of the aircrews in the debriefing hut that afternoon, or on the island, believed the story. Knowing Bowen, Cramer certainly didn’t. But, there were others in the hut.
This bit of humor found legs. Aircrews thought it was a good joke. But others believed it. The story was embellished and spread quickly over the island. Bowen and Cramer just quietly smiled when they overheard groups of soldiers and airmen talking about the Japanese dog found in a B-29 bomb bay. The story was locally famous.
But that would change.
Bowen and Cramer led remarkably parallel lives after first meeting in Nebraska for B-29 training. They arrived on Tinian on the same date, on different B-29s of the 9th Bombardment Group. They flew combined bombing raids together until they accrued the required number to merit rest and recuperation back in the United States.
They completed their 35th mission on the same day and rode on the same returning troop transport aircraft, landing in San Francisco. They even arrived back in Portland on the same train. Their parents, who did not know each other before the war, met them at Union Station on Aug. 6, 1945, an immensely significant date, the day an atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Bowen and Cramer hadn’t known that the guarded, extremely secure area of the airfield on Tinian, where the Enola Gay had been since early July, had held the nuclear means to end the war, and to change the nature of war forever.
Their lives continued on a parallel track. They went to the University of Oregon on the GI Bill. After they graduated, Cramer started a law practice; Bowen partnered to help run his father’s insurance agency. Their offices were on Southwest 5th Avenue in Portland, just two blocks apart. They had lunch together nearly every day until Bowen retired, and they saw each other often until Bowen died in 1993.
In a final tribute to a very close war buddy, and their war-bonded friendship, Cramer flew back to Tinian Island and buried some of Bowen’s ashes there.
Cramer’s father, John Cramer Sr., was appointed the first president of Portland State University in 1955 and Cramer Hall is named in his honor. One of Bowen’s sons, Kit Bowen, is a veteran of the Vietnam War. Cramer, who lives in Portland’s West End, sees him often, veterans of wars a generation apart.
Some days after their return to Portland from the war, Bowen stopped at a newsstand and picked up the Aug. 13, 1945, issue of Life magazine. He leafed through it, stopped and let out a hearty laugh.
Accompanying a two-page photo spread of the aerial war over Japan was an article that included Bowen’s prank as fact: “A low flying B-29 slammed through flying debris, later discovered that an unhappy Japanese dog had been blown through the bomb bay into the plane.”
The Life magazine story became legend as part of the 9th Bomb Group’s valiant and decorated history, retold again and again at veterans’ reunions. The facts eventually unfolded within the ranks of journalism some years later —an unlikely wartime story fostered by a dog of war, and a boy from Portland.